If I was going to be naked in public, I was going to be naked in public on my terms.
“You know it’s fully nude, right?” the woman behind the ticket counter asked. “And co-ed?”
“Yes,” we said, sliding the bills across the counter. Thirty-five Euros for a three-and-a-half hour bath and brush massage at Friedrichsbad, the famous bathhouse in Baden-Baden, Germany. The woman opened the till. Tom put his arm on the desk and leaned in. “Do people ever leave when you tell them that?”
One of the bathhouse’s managers standing nearby overheard the question and told us that people often do leave when they’re told the nudity is mandatory. Not everybody’s comfortable naked. As Tom and I walked toward the locker room, we passed a middle-aged French man with what appeared to be his three 20-something children (two boys and a girl). The four of them seemed to be having second thoughts. They huddled around the manager, whispering questions. The girl, in particular, looked anxious.
Like the French family, I was a little nervous. I’m an American, and therefore by definition pretty uptight about nudity. In the U.S., we will lock you up for streaking, and this sort of co-ed bathing just doesn’t happen back home. It comforted me that some French people, who I would normally assume to be more easygoing than Americans when it came to the naked human form, appeared so frightened. But as I disrobed and tried to prepare—mentally, physically, spiritually—for the rest of the afternoon, it occurred to me that I might look just as uneasy as the French. I figured, absent clothes, the only way to really draw attention to oneself in a place like Friedrichsbad is to appear obviously uncomfortable. I needed to stay calm.
Before I stepped out of the locker room, I took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and slung my towel over my shoulder. I’d heard stories of Friedrichsbad’s bathing attendants snatching towels off of frightened Americans, and I didn’t want to give anyone the satisfaction. If I was going to be naked in public, I was going to be naked in public on my terms.
BADEN-BADEN HAS A very James Bond feel, in that it reeks of wealth, is full of upper-class Russians, and sits in the foothills of an area in Germany called the Black Forest. All the Bond-extra-types that fill the town’s streets come for the city’s spas and its famous casino. The Casino, as it’s called, is the type of gambling establishment where the patrons wear tuxedos and ball gowns. (It’s also the setting of Dostoevsky’s The Gambler.) Walking around town, seeing display cases full of gold Fabergé eggs and streets lined with Ferraris, you get the sense that extravagance has deep roots here. Mark Twain visited in the late 1870s, noting, “It is an inane town, filled with sham, and petty fraud, and snobbery, but the baths are good.”
Friedrichsbad, the city’s fully-nude, completely co-ed, 17-stage, thermal-powered bathhouse, was built in 1877 and has stood as an emblem to all that is high-class and naked ever since. The building sits up a small flight of stairs from Baden-Baden’s old town, right on top of a thermal hot spring. Its façade is all stone, and like all neoclassical buildings, Friedrichsbad gives an impression of vague importance. And as far as bathhouses go, it is important. Friedrichsbad is one of the landmarks for Germany’s free body culture or Freikörperkultur—FKK for short. (Link is not safe for work.)
The FKK movement began in the late 1800s, arguably as a kind of reaction to the griminess of the industrial revolution. If industry was the manifestation of human impurity, with all that soot and heat, being in the forest, naked, was about as far to the opposite end of the spectrum as you could get. For the last hundred years, Germany’s nudists have succeeded in relaxing societal opposition to public nudity—and the laws governing it— to the point where public nudity is almost a non-issue today. (By comparison, even in San Francisco, the U.S.’s most liberal city, it is still very much a big issue).